Death grip

A hard-hitting new book by two mainstream Israeli journalists blames both Sharon and Arafat for the bloody stalemate that grips the Holy Land.


Aluf Benn
October 7, 2004 3:36AM (UTC)

True to their violent form, Palestinians and Israelis marked the fourth anniversary of their stalemated war with a fresh round of fighting, this time in the Gaza area. As they await the implementation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip, scheduled for next year, both sides are trying to improve their military stance. The Palestinians have been relentlessly firing homemade Qassam rockets into the Israeli border town of Sderot, killing two small children last Wednesday. Israeli reaction was fierce: Tanks and infantry captured the northern outskirts of Gaza, aiming to drive the rocket launchers out of their effective five-mile range. They killed at least 75 Palestinians, mostly suspected militants but also a number of children and unarmed people, and destroyed many houses in the process.

The real battle is to frame the way the proposed Israeli "disengagement" is seen. Sharon has vowed not to evacuate the settlements "under fire," knowing that a failure to stop the rain of rockets could derail his plan and strengthen the settler opposition. After all, what's the point in withdrawing if the threat from Gaza remains? Therefore, he demanded a stronger military response in order to "change the situation in Gaza." Spending the Jewish Sukkot holiday in his farm close to the war zone, Sharon could hear the sounds of battle while talking to his chiefs of security and intelligence. Their plan has a catch in it, however. In order to drive the Qassam rockets out of range, Israel would have to occupy a "security zone" in Gaza, contrary to its withdrawal plans. This inherent paradox has yet to be resolved.

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The Palestinians, for their part, are determined to show that Israel lost the battle in Gaza and ran away. This could prove a major achievement for their four-year-old intifada, or uprising, which so far has brought mostly misery, poverty and death to the embattled inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. An Israeli flight would undoubtedly boost the morale on the Palestinian side. Sharon will try to prevent his enemy from celebrating.

After the first four years, there is still a strong consensus on both sides to keep the war going. Peaceful alternatives have long been forgotten. America, sunk deep in the Iraq quagmire, has given up even a pretense of interest and all but waived its nominal support for a Palestinian state. Both Sharon and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, are fighting for political survival, rather than seeking a way out of the mess.

But has this catastrophe been inevitable? A new book (in Hebrew), "The Seventh War: How We Won and Why We Lost the War With the Palestinians," depicts the crisis as a tragedy of mutual miscalculations, lost opportunities and overreacting. The authors, Amos Harel, the military correspondent of Haaretz newspaper (full disclosure: Harel is a friend and colleague), and Avi Isacharoff, the Arab affairs correspondent of Israel's state-owned radio network, have covered the conflict from its first day, when Sharon, then the opposition leader, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holiest, most contested site in the embattled land, prompting widespread Palestinian demonstrations. For the book, they interviewed a wide range of ministers, commanders and warriors on both sides, including jailed Palestinian ringleaders who had sent suicide bombers on their murderous missions. However, rich as it is with details and analyses of what went wrong, their book offers no clue to what could have been done to lead the duelers out of their self-created morass.

Harel and Isacharoff blame both sides. They reject the official Israeli narrative, which charges Arafat with planning and launching the intifada after rejecting Israel's "generous offer" at the failed Camp David summit of summer 2000. They write that Israel failed to produce "convincing evidence" that Arafat "gave instructions to pour fuel on the fire," or evidence linking him directly to suicide attacks on Israelis. But they have few positive words for the Palestinian leader. "When Sharon came atop the Temple Mount and the riots erupted, the Rais [Arafat] seized the opportunity. He made no effort to halt the violence, and quickly contributed to its spreading. In later stages, he lost control over the terror offensive, but it hasn't bothered him, as long as the blame could be put on Israel, and as long as no unreasonable concessions, in his view, were imposed upon him."

Several weeks into the conflict, the lines of battle were drawn, while negotiations and high-level talks went on in the background. The turning point, which led to ever growing escalation, came in early 2001. Israelis elected Sharon, the old warrior, to crush the intifada. Their rivals responded with a wave of suicide attacks across the "Green Line," that is, inside pre-1967 Israel. In hindsight, Harel and Isacharoff write, this was the Palestinians' major blunder. "Had they focused their struggle in the [occupied] territories -- hitting at soldiers and settlers there -- there might have been a chance to achieve their hope of turning the West Bank and Gaza quickly into a second Lebanon, showing the casualties as the price of occupation and prompting a deep debate in Israel over the need and ability to hold the territories." When the Palestinians hit at the Israeli cities, Israelis were convinced that this was a war of existence and gave wide support for the Sharon government's tough counterterrorism measures.

Using exaggerated force has been the Israelis' largest sin, according to "The Seventh War." Time and again, Israel relied upon its military might and ignored opportunities to calm the fighting, while failing to win a decisive victory over the Palestinians.

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The IDF, Israel's military, prepared itself thoroughly for the violent contest. Scarred by two humiliating experiences -- the "tunnel incidents" in 1996, when Palestinian policemen used their weapons against Israelis, and the unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000 -- the IDF command, led by generals Shaul Mofaz (first as chief of staff and, later, defense minister) and Moshe Yaalon (currently the chief of staff), vowed to win the next round. The preparations were incomplete, however, as the military anticipated shooting exchanges in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than suicide attacks on the Israeli rear. Mofaz trained his officers to emerge victorious from every encounter with the other side. Since the political directive in the first days banned the IDF from capturing Palestinian-ruled areas, the army had to rely on heavy fire, rather than on maneuvering in enemy territory. The outcome was the killing of many Palestinians. "Fire was used widely, and not always wisely," Harel and Isacharoff write. Had the military preparations turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, fueling the conflict rather than suppressing it? The authors quote ex-general Zvika Fogel, formerly No. 2 in the IDF Southern Command, who said, "We created such high expectations and such a low threshold for response among the soldiers, until it appears as if we were waiting for an excuse." According to Fogel, the IDF exaggerated the Palestinian threat, and its actions encouraged the other side's violent actions.

Among many scoops in their book, Harel and Isacharoff disclose that Sharon and Arafat maintained a back channel through their aides, even before the 2001 Israeli elections. Sharon's confidant, Dov Weisglass, watched the exit polls together with Muhammad Rashid, Arafat's financier and close advisor. After Sharon's victory, the aides worked out a plan to resume negotiations, including a first meeting of the leaders. According to a senior Palestinian source, it was Arafat who put off the proposed summit, believing that meeting Sharon would harm his stance among his Arab counterparts.

"The Seventh War" portrays Sharon as a master tactician who never had a serious strategy to end the war. Caught up in his old days as a battalion and regional commander, it took him a while to get used to modern military lingo and operations. But just as he did when he wore a uniform, Sharon as national leader has always relied on force to achieve his goals.

If the Palestinians' weapon of choice was suicide bombers -- blowing themselves up in Israeli buses, cafes, shopping malls and hotels, killing scores of civilians -- the Israelis' was "targeted assassinations" of suspected terrorists and terrorist leaders, mostly from the air. The authors quote an Israeli minister who took part in the decision making as saying, "Sharon saw himself as the greatest warrior against terror, and viewed the 'eliminations' as the embodiment of the war." They add: "Sharon begged the IDF and the Shabak [Israel's security service] to step up the pace of assassinations. Since in his old age he had trouble falling asleep, his aides got used to receiving calls at 3 a.m. from his house: 'I'm hearing the sound of helicopters above the farm. Does it mean that good news from Gaza can be expected?'"

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The authors argue that assassinations are not wrong in principle and may sometimes achieve tactical results such as intercepting experienced bomb makers and disrupting the command structure of terrorist groups like Hamas. However, they believe that Israel under Sharon has overused this method without assessing its consequences properly, and sometimes without regard for civilian lives. Harel and Isacharoff quote senior military officers who got the impression that their political masters often ordered assassinations after Palestinian attacks in order to please an angry public. Moreover, once a Palestinian operative has entered the Israeli hit list, his killing becomes a matter of operational opportunity, rather than a serious calculation of pros and cons.

The worst example of ill-timed, ill-thought assassination was the killing of Raed Karmi, a Fatah leader in the West Bank town of Tul Karm, in January 2002. The 28-year-old Karmi was indisputably a terrorist, a charismatic rising star of the intifada, whose group killed 12 Israeli soldiers and civilians. Tracking him down became an obsession with IDF and Shabak commanders, who followed him to his weakest point: a daily visit to one of his lovers, a married woman. An explosive charge was hidden in a cemetery wall on the route Karmi took to see her and detonated as he passed, killing Karmi on the spot. After his assassination, widely seen today as a tragic mistake, all hell broke loose. The Palestinians ended a fragile cease-fire, launching a wave of suicide attacks into Israel. The Fatah, Arafat's mainstream organization, joined the Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in attacks inside Israel. The Palestinian offensive prompted Israel to launch its reoccupation campaign in the West Bank, in spring 2002, which effectively ended the shaky rule of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, only stopping short of expelling the old leader, who has been confined ever since to his ruined headquarters in Ramallah.

The other significant outcome of the 2002 suicide offensive was the creation of the Israeli "security barrier" -- also called, depending on one's political position, a fence or an "apartheid wall" -- in the West Bank. Here again, the authors criticize Sharon's decision making. They accuse him of responding too late to a public demand to build a life-saving project, and then pushing the barrier too deep into the West Bank, ignoring the needs of the Palestinian population and raising severe international and judicial criticism. According to the book, Sharon personally drew the barrier's route, relying on his intimate knowledge of the West Bank terrain, together with the army colonel who heads the project's design, thus bypassing the entire chain of command between them. But despite its failures, the barrier succeeded in drastically reducing terror attacks along its built-up parts.

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The worst Israeli folly, according to "The Seventh War," came in summer 2003, when Sharon's timidity and hesitation contributed to the failure of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the short-term Palestinian premier. Abu Mazen, an open critic of Arafat and the violent intifada, offered great hope for a change: He was backed by the Bush administration and recognized as a partner even by Sharon. It's true that he was undermined by Arafat, but the Sharon government did not lend him a helping hand either. The Israeli leader did not offer him even a shred of the settlement-removal plan he is now offering unilaterally in his disengagement plan. Had he done so then, the entire political dynamic could have shifted. Now, Sharon's Gaza plan is seen by the Palestinians as a ruse, designed to ensure that Israel maintains permanent control over its settlements in the larger and more important West Bank.

"Both sides appear to suffer from a similar blindness," Harel and Isacharoff write. "They watch the adversary's actions far more meticulously than their own. Israel sees its actions as necessary responses for terror, but ignores their damage -- the killed civilians, the travel restrictions, the spread of settlements. The Palestinians interpret any Israeli move as a scheme to dispossess them from their land, without recognizing the influence of terror, viewing their actions as mere response and defense against the occupation."

The authors devote a special chapter to Israeli war abuses, especially in killing innocent civilians. They depict a widespread disregard for Palestinian lives in the ranks of the IDF. The Israeli military and police still have no useful non-lethal means to dispel demonstrators; instead they use assault rifles, sniper rifles and even tanks, with deadly outcomes. The IDF largely refrains from investigating the deaths of Palestinians, and the high command has little control over the lower echelons in the field. Every few months, the Israeli media reports about an abuse of innocent Palestinians. The military asserts that these are exceptions, but according to "The Seventh War," it is a common phenomenon. "Soldiers view violence against Palestinians as almost obvious," they write. A research by an IDF field psychologist found that "soldiers' violence against Palestinians is a normative phenomenon that should be recognized and understood ... The army refrains from dealing with it."

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The authors' most wrenching interview was with "K," a recently released infantry conscript, who served two and a half years in Gaza, lost two close friends, and killed several Palestinians, one of them a civilian. "I will carry it with me for years. The service changed me, made me nervous and restless," he told them. "When I meet friends from my company we talk about everything but what it did to us. Every day we were hit by shooting, bombs and mortars. I did what I did to defend Israeli civilians who needed protection there [the settlers]. Now everybody talks about withdrawal. Where were you three years ago? It drives me crazy. What were we looking for in Gaza even then?"


Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.

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